The name Israel means those who wrestle with God. Do you remember how Jacob got the name? He had left his wives’ homeland with their father hot on their trails. He was afraid he would force him to stay, but God commanded Laban not to touch Jacob. Then his brother Esau intercepted him on his journey home and Jacob feared for his life and the life of his family. The last time he saw Esau their father Isaac had died and Esau was plotting to kill Jacob. He put some space between his family and Esau.
[Jacob] took [his family] and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Gen. 32:23-28
This angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ. The Father is not flesh and blood and so in the Old Testament the angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ, comes and often inserts himself in the story of Israel. This is an important moment for the church. Jacob is returning to the promised land. He is returning blessed by the Lord despite his sinfulness, despite his doubts, despite his fears. This community of faith is marked by its wrestling.
The New Testament church is a wild olive branch grafted into the root of Israel, and so we are those who wrestle with God as well. It’s always been a collective wrestling. We wrestle together as a community. We wrestle with the doubts and fears of our covenant family. We wrestle with our lack of faith. We wrestle for the fatherless and the widows. We wrestle for the weak and abused. We wrestle for our families.
During my most intense wrestling with the difficult questions about the faith, I recall that, although my faith seemed dangerously close to shipwrecking, the faith of my family, the faith of the Church, and, most foundational, the faith of Jesus Christ anchored me as it felt as though I was alone. The waves of doubt were billowing but my Anchor held fast.
Shortly after that experience, an immediate family member also had a similar struggle with doubt and depression. I regularly told them that, although their faith was weak, it didn’t need to be strong. I would believe the promises of God for them. I would call out to God on their behalf. I would plead with God that nothing would separate them from Him. He was faithful to me and He would be faithful to them. He was. And isn’t He always faithful? Without a doubt. That’s the strength found in a community of faith that wrestles with God together.
But the wrestling doesn’t begin or end with us now. Centuries of Christians have wrestled with God before us. They strove with God. They asked Him tough questions. They doubted. They feared. They felt alone. That’s the beauty of being grafted into this ancient olive tree called the Church. We do not wrestle alone. We do not wrestle just in the now. We wrestle with the saints of yesterday. We wrestle as a collective Church united with Jesus Christ.
Mathew Sims is the author of A Household Gospel Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and also writes for CBMW Men’s blog, Gospel Centered Discipleship, and Servants of Grace. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel Centered Discipleship. They attend Downtown Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC.
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